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The Complete Poems

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From the joy and anguish of her own experience, Sexton fashioned poems that told truths about the inner lives of men and women. This book comprises Sexton's ten volumes of verse, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Live or Die, as well as seven poems from her last years.

622 pages, Paperback

First published September 30, 1981

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About the author

Anne Sexton

141 books2,101 followers
Anne Sexton once told a journalist that her fans thought she got better, but actually, she just became a poet. These words are characteristic of a talented poet that received therapy for years, but committed suicide in spite of this. The poetry fed her art, but it also imprisoned her in a way.

Her parents didn’t expect much of her academically, and after completing her schooling at Rogers Hall, she went to a finishing school in Boston. Anne met her husband, Kayo (Alfred Muller Sexton II), in 1948 by correspondence. Her mother advised her to elope after she thought she might be pregnant. Anne and Kayo got married in 1948 in North Carolina. After the honeymoon Kayo started working at his father-in-law’s wool business.

In 1953 Anne gave birth to her first-born, Linda Gray. Two years later Linda’s sister, Joyce Ladd, was born. But Anne couldn’t cope with the pressure of two small children over and above Kayo’s frequent absence (due to work). Shortly after Joy was born, Anne was admitted to Westwood Lodge where she was treated by the psychiatrist Dr. Martha Brunner-Orne (and six months later, her son, Dr. Martin Orne, took over). The original diagnosis was for post-natal depression, but the psychologists later decided that Anne suffered from depression of biological nature.

While she was receiving psychiatric treatment, Anne started writing poetry. It all started after another suicide attempt, when Orne came to her and told her that she still has a purpose in life. At that stage she was convinced that she could only become a prostitute. Orne showed her another talent that she had, and her first poetry appeared in print in the January of 1957. She wrote a huge amount of poetry that was published in a dozen poetry books. In 1967 she became the proud recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die (1966).

In March 1972 Anne and Kayo got divorced. After this a desperate kind of loneliness took over her life. Her addiction to pills and alcohol worsened. Without Kayo the house was very quiet, the children were at college and most of Anne’s friends were avoiding her because they could no longer sympathize with her growing problems. Her poetry started playing such a major role in her life that conflicts were written out, rather than being faced. Anne didn’t mention a word to Kayo about her intention to get divorced. He knew that she desperately needed him, but her poems, and her real feelings toward him, put it differently. Kayo talks about it in an interview as follows: “... I honestly don’t know, never have known, what her real, driving motive was in the divorce. Which is another reason why it absolutely drove me into the floor like a nail when she did it.”

On 4 October 1974 she put on her mother’s old fur coat before, glass of vodka in hand, she climbed into her car, turned the key and died of monodioxide inhalation. She once told Orne that “I feel like my mother whenever I put it [the fur coat] on”. Her oldest daughter, Linda, was appointed as literary executor and we have her to thank for the three poetry books that appeared posthumously.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 419 reviews
Profile Image for Michael.
657 reviews968 followers
July 15, 2018
From the self-conscious and contemplative poems of To Bedlam and Part Way Back to the strange and surreal verse of The Awful Rowing Toward God, Anne Sexton's work encompasses a wide range of styles: few other American poets have written so many kinds of poems, on such different subjects, while successfully capturing the attention of the public. Often interested in personal relationships, as well as the bond between poet and audience, Sexton's poems consistently dazzle readers with inventive images, swift pacing, and simple but powerful language. So, too, does her work typically take on taboo topics and experiences belonging to women. But her specific subject matter shifts from collection to collection. All My Pretty Ones deals with the death of parents and entering middle age; Love Poems domestic misery and unsustainable affairs; Transformations fairytales and patriarchal oppression; The Death Notebooks celebrity and suicide. Different as the collections might be from each other, though, there is a distinct stylistic progression amongst them, making The Complete Poems best read in order.
Profile Image for Steven Godin.
2,282 reviews2,151 followers
June 10, 2022

To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) - 4/5
All My Pretty Ones (1962) - 5/5
Live or Die (1966) - 4/5
Love Poems (1969) - 5/5
Transformations (1971) - 3/5
The Book of Folly (1972) - 5/5
The Death Notebooks (1974) - 5/5
The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975) - 5/5

45 Mercy Street (1976) - 5/5
Words for Dr. Y (1978) - 4/5

Other Poems (1971-1973) - 5/5
Scorpio, Bad Spider, Die (1971) - 5/5
Last Poems - 4/5

All Anne Sexton's major work in one place, plus previously unreleased material to complete, what is arguably, the greatest collection of poetry I have ever read. Only slightly hampered by 'Transformations', which seems out of place with everything else. She is at her troubling best when writing of death, wife beaters, mental illness, menstruation, and cancer, rather than Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Whilst I believe Transformations to be her weakest work, all the rest of it, she simply didn't put a foot wrong.
The later poems towards the end of her life clearly highlight a rapidly disturbed mind.
It's sad to see.

The facts of Anne's difficult and chaotic life are well known, and no other American poet in our time has cried out aloud publicly on so many private details. While the frankness of these revelations attracted many readers, especially women, who identified strongly with the female aspect of the poems, a number of critics - for the most part misogynist men, took offense. Probably down to the fact they couldn't handle a woman being talented, and doing so well.
The intimate details divulged in Sexton's poetry enchanted or repelled with equal passion. In addition to the strong feelings Anne's work aroused, there was the undeniable fact of her physical beauty. Her presence on the platform dazzled with its staginess, its props of water glass, cigarettes, and ashtray. She used pregnant pauses, husky whispers, pseudoshouts to calculated effect. A Sexton audience might hiss its displeasure or deliver a standing ovation. One thing it wouldn't have done, is doze off during a reading.

Anne basked in the attention she attracted, partly because it was antithetical to an earlier generation's view of the woman writer as 'poetess' and partly because she was flattered by and
enjoyed the adoration of her public. But behind the glamorously garbed woman lurked a terrified and homely child, cowed from the cradle onward, it seemed, by the indifference and cruelties of
her world. Her parents, she was convinced, had not wanted her to be born. Her sisters, she alleged, competed against and won out over her. Her teachers, unable to rouse the slumbering intelligence
from its hiding place, treated her with impatience and anger. Anne's counterphobic response to rejection and admonishment was always to defy, dare, press, contravene. Thus the frightened
little girl became a flamboyant and provocative woman, bursting at the seems to put pen to paper. The timid girl who skulked in closets burst forth as an exhibitionist, the intensely private individual bared her soul to the masses, and in public readings where almost invariably there was standing room only.

'All My Pretty Ones', 'The Death Notebooks' and the posthumously released '45 Mercy Street' I would say are my favourite volumes. But overall, there was very little to begrudge about.
Over 600 pages of simply great poetry.

It's impossible to pluck out of so many the poems that stuck in my mind, so have randomly picked three to finish off with.


Oh, love, why do we argue like this?
I am tired of all your pious talk.
Also, I am tired of all the dead.
They refuse to listen,
so leave them alone.
Take your foot out of the graveyard,
they are busy being dead.
Everyone was always to blame:
the last empty fifth of booze,
the rusty nails and chicken feathers
that stuck in the mud on the back doorstep,
the worms that lived under the cat's ear
and the thin-lipped preacher
who refused to call
except once on a flea-ridden day
when he came scuffing in through the yard
looking for a scapegoat.
I hid in the kitchen under the ragbag.
I refuse to remember the dead.
And the dead are bored with the whole thing.
But you — you go ahead,
go on, go on back down
into the graveyard,
lie down where you think their faces are;
talk back to your old bad dreams.


Half awake in my Sunday nap
I see three green windows
in three different lights —
one west, one south, one east.
I have forgotten that old friends are dying.
I have forgotten that I grow middle-aged.
At each window such rustlings!
The trees persist, yeasty and sensuous,
as thick as saints.
I see three wet gargoyles covered with birds.
Their skins shine in the sun like leather.

I'm on my bed as light as a sponge.
Soon it will be summer.
She is my mother.
She will tell me a story and keep me asleep
against her plump and fruity skin.
I see leaves —
leaves that are washed and innocent,
leaves that never knew a cellar,
born in their own green blood
like the hands of mermaids.

I do not think of the rusty wagon on the walk.
I pay no attention to the red squirrels
that leap like machines beside the house.
I do not remember the real trunks of the trees
that stand beneath the windows
as bulky as artichokes.
I turn like a giant,
secretly watching, secretly knowing,
secretly naming each elegant sea.

I have misplaced the Van Allen belt,
the sewers and the drainage,
the urban renewal and the suburban centers.
I have forgotten the names of the literary critics.
I know what I know.
I am the child I was,
living the life that was mine.
I am young and half asleep.
It is a time of water, a time of trees.


Earth, earth,
riding your merry-go-round
toward extinction,
right to the roots,
thickening the oceans like gravy,
festering in your caves,
you are becoming a latrine.
Your trees are twisted chairs.
Your flowers moan at their mirrors,
and cry for a sun that doesn't wear a mask.

Your clouds wear white,
trying to become nuns
and say novenas to the sky.
The sky is yellow with its jaundice,
and its veins spill into the rivers
where the fish kneel down
to swallow hair and goat's eyes.

All in all, I'd say,
the world is strangling.
And I, in my bed each night,
listen to my twenty shoes
converse about it.
And the moon,
under its dark hood,
falls out of the sky each night,
with its hungry red mouth
to suck at my scars.
Profile Image for Perry.
630 reviews497 followers
May 23, 2018
"strings are incurably playing...the composer has stepped into fire."

I devoured The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton, whose poetry, especially her love poems, quivers with a pulsating eros as it sways to its orgiastic echoes.

My nerves are turned on. I hear them like
musical instruments. Where there was silence
the drums, the strings are incurably playing. You did this.
Pure genius at work. Darling, the composer has stepped
into fire.

From "The Kiss."

Hers was a tragic life, throughout most of which she suffered severe mental illness. Yet, by the late 1960s she was one of the most revered poets in America, having won the Pulitzer and being made the first female member of the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

Her poetry seems most notable for the openness with which she wrote confessional poetry about topics still deemed taboo for open personal discussion such as incest, masturbation, menstruation, adultery and drug addiction. By the early 1970s, some critics saw her as a lazy boozy poetess. Others since have been kinder, saying that she had matured to the use her poems as an "instrument against the 'politesse' of language, politics, religion [and] sex." Rothenberg, Joris, Poems for the Millenium, 1995.

A passage from another of my favorite poems, "Eighteen Days Without You":

Draw me good, draw me warm.
Bring me your raw-boned wrist and your
strange, Mr. Bind, strange stubborn horn.
Darling, bring with this an hour of undulations, for
this is the music for which I was born.

Lock in! Be alert, my acrobat
and I will be soft wood and you the nail
and we will make fiery ovens for Jack Sprat
and you will hurl yourself into my tiny jail
and we will take a supper together and that
will be that.

At age 45, in October 1974, Ms. Sexton locked herself in her garage, started her car's engine and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Peter Gabriel obviously loved her poetry enough to write and dedicate to her a song called "Mercy Street" on his 1986 album; a few lines:

"she pictures the broken glass, she pictures the steam
she pictures a soul
with no leak at the seam
dreaming of mercy street
wear your insides out
dreaming of mercy
Anne, with her father is out in the boat
riding the water
riding the waves on the sea."

Thank you to the publisher Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley for a copy of this wonderful book in exchange for a fair review.
Profile Image for Kimber.
197 reviews61 followers
December 1, 2020
"Loneliness is just an exile from God."
-Anne Sexton, April 1,1963

Writing poems, for me, is simply a way to express what cannot be expressed any other way. This is also how Anne was as a Confessional poet and as someone who began writing in therapy, her poems were an extension of her psychoanalysis but she went much further: she became an artist. So much of her work is the process, the process, the process- of throwing clay to make a jar.

these are my favorites -
Her Kind
The Farmer's Wife
Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward
The Truth the Dead Know
The Starry Night
The Abortion
With Mercy for the Greedy
For Eleanor Boylan Talking with God
The Black Art
Just Once
Man and Wife

The entire book of "The Awful Rowing Toward God" is what I consider to be her masterpiece

Just Once

Just once I knew what life was for.
In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood;
walked there along the Charles River,
watched the lights copying themselves,
all neoned and strobe-hearted, opening
their mouths as wide as opera singers;
counted the stars, my little campaigners,
my scar daisies, and knew that I walked my love
on the night green side of it and cried
my heart to the eastbound cars and cried
my heart to the westbound cars and took
my truth across a small humped bridge
and hurried my truth, the charm of it, home
and hoarded these constants into morning
only to find them gone.
Profile Image for John.
85 reviews12 followers
June 25, 2007
Sexton is a bit of an obsession of mine--I've been reading her poetry since I was a teenager, and *almost* wrote my dissertation on her! She's often compared to Sylvia Plath (who was her friend), but her poetry is very different. Where Plath is something of an intellectual poet and a meticulous craftsman, Sexton is more dramatic and playful; she doesn't have the same control of language as Plath, but she is a little more accessible. Plath was an introvert, but Sexton loved to perform for an audience and her poetry reflects her personality. Like Plath, though, she was deeply troubled and committed suicide in a similar fashion.

Her best poems are in her first two books, and in the collection called "Transformations" which offers modern re-tellings of classic fairy-tales--usually from a woman's perspective. "Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)" is fantastic.
Profile Image for Dawn.
Author 4 books36 followers
September 15, 2010
I'm in this workshop and I have this poem and Kathleen Fraser says that if I don't take every pronoun out of my poem I run the risk of seeming confessional which is "at the worst, Anne Sexton, and at the best, Sylvia Plath." I felt stomped on. Not because she was right about my poem, but because I became aware that everyone could see me doing it, reading the complete Sexton, cover to cover one spring in college. I can see me beside the pool reading it and I'm thinking fuck you Kathleen, because everyone is a young women sometimes and everyone wants those long long legs.
Profile Image for Χαρά Ζ..
208 reviews56 followers
February 15, 2020
Θα μοιραστώ ιστορία, λοιπόν.
Γνώρισα μια γυναίκα το τελευταίο διάστημα, και λέω γυναίκα γιατί μου ρίχνει κάποια χρόνια, και 'γω δεν είμαι πια μικρή. Είναι, καλή ψυχή. Ξέρετε, απ' αυτούς που κάθεσαι και τους χαζεύεις και λες, "τι ωραίος άνθρωπος", που απορείς γιατί κάνουν κουβέντα μαζί σου. Έχουμε λοιπόν ένα κοινό, αγαπάμε και οι δύο την ποίηση πολύ, και κάπου απέχουμε κάπου συγκλινουμε, ξέρετε, αυτά τα όμορφα. Έπεσε λοιπόν εμένα το μάτι μου σ' έναν τίτλο που δεν τον είχα ξαναδεί, σ' ένα όνομα που δεν το χα ξαναδεί. "Αχ, είναι φανταστική, αλήθεια, να διαβάσεις, νομίζω θα σου αρέσει". Την έχω έτοιμη λοιπόν, όταν μου βγει η ανάγκη να τηνε διαβάσω θα το κάνω. Δεν είναι η πρώτη φορά που συμβαίνει κάτι παρόμοιο το τελευταίο διάστημα. Λόγω ενός παιδιού, ένα παλικάρι στάθηκε η αφορμή να διαβάσω έναν καινούριο σε μένα ποιητή, και τον αγάπησα πολύ, και νιώθω ευγνωμοσύνη απέναντι στον άνθρωπο, που εξαιτίας του διάβασα κάτι καινούργιο, κάτι καινούργιο που μάλιστα μου άρεσε.
Την Σέξτον λοιπόν, την Ανν, την χρωστάω σε έναν άνθρωπο που αγαπώ λίγο πολύ, λίγο πάρα πολύ, την διάβασα όχι γιατί μου την πρότεινε, μα γιατί είναι από τις αγαπημένες της. Δηλαδή, και να μην μου την πρότεινε, πάλι θα την έπιανα στα χέρια μου, γιατί την αγαπάει.
Δεν ξέρω γιατί κατέληξα να αγαπώ με την ίδια ένταση την Σέξτον, τούτο το βιβλίο το διαβάζω δεύτερη φορά μέσα σε λίγους μήνες, δεν είχα διαβάσει κάτι που να έμοιαζε μαζί της ποτέ στη ζωή μου, δεν είναι καν του γούστου μου, μα την αγάπησα. Νιώθ�� τόση ευγνωμοσύνη απέναντι στην κοπέλα, γιατί μοιράστηκε κάτι δικό της μαζί μου, και μου έκανε την Σέξτον δώρο. Θα μου πείτε, όλοι το κάνουν, όλοι μιλάνε για τους αγαπημένους τους συγγραφείς. Το ξέρω. Η συγκεκριμένη διαφέρει στον τρόπο που αγαπάει την ποίηση, και το λέω αυτό, γιατί έτσι νιώθω, γιατί αυτό μου βγάζει.
Αλήθεια σας το λέω μπέσα, δεν υπάρχει πιο ενδιαφέρον πράγμα στον κόσμο, από έναν άνθρωπο που μου μιλάει. Και θέλω να πω ευχαριστώ, και το εννοώ, ευχαριστώ τόσο πολύ που μοιράστηκες την αγάπη σου για την Σέξτον μαζί μου. Μου την έκανες δώρο, σ'ευχαριστώ.
Profile Image for Momina.
202 reviews51 followers
September 8, 2014
"Someone once said that we have art in order not to die of the truth, a dictum we might neatly apply to Sexton's perspectives. To Hayden Carruth, the poems "raise the never-solved problem of what literature really is, where you draw the line between art and documentary." -- Maxine Kumin in her Foreword

Sexton's poetry transcends the shamelessly personal because, unlike Plath, she did not disguise herself behind metaphors; not in the least as cerebrally as Plath, anyway. And in doing so, she rendered herself not only more accessible than Plath but paradoxically more hard to read. As I said, she transcends the mere personal; this is flesh and blood here. You're not simply reading a journal, you're reading each and every waking thought, every single nightmare and dream, every trip to the hospital, every death and every birth which she went through. This is more than biography. This is the poetic reconstruction of the person Anne Sexton was in all its nakedness.

"I did not know the woman I would be
nor that blood would bloom in me
each month like an exotic flower,
nor that children,
two monuments,
would break from between my legs
two cramped girls breathing carelessly,
each asleep in her tiny beauty.
I did not know that my life, in the end,
would run over my mother's like a truck
and all that would remain
from the year I was six
was a small hole in my heart, a deaf spot,
so that I might hear
the unsaid more clearly."

Critics of confessional poetry might say that in maintaining fidelity to one's person alone, writers risk universality, and will only be relevant to a certain class of readers. But I have to say that you do not need to be a manic depressive to get Sexton's poetry, you just need to be human. We're not all that different from each other deep down where fears fester and dreams are born. By simply being Anne Sexton, she wrote about the human condition, in its insanity, glory and passion. She wrote about me and you and all of us, in our collective rowing towards something more meaningful and substantial. In short, she's universal and relevant as heck!

"Sweet weight,
in celebration of the woman I am
and of the soul of the woman I am
and of the central creature and its delight
I sing for you. I dare to live.
Hello, spirit. Hello, cup.
Fasten, cover. Cover that does contain.
Hello to the soil of the fields.
Welcome, roots."

Coming to the poetry, I think Transformations stands out remarkably in terms of literary significance from the rest of her books. What she did is something very fascinating here. She reworked many famous Grimm stories, and brought them down to planet earth, stripping them of their happily-ever-afters, and exposing them for what they really stand for in the real world which we all inhabit. Those who have cherished Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm as kids might be a little appalled to read these poems, but I believe that very few will fail to appreciate these twisted interpretations. Here's Cinderella , for example.

All in all, it has been one hell of an experience reading Sexton, and you finish with the illusion, if you can call it that, of having known a very troubled yet sensitive spirit intimately. There are poems about madness, about the parent-child relation and how things never go right there, about her mother's death, her father and sister, about her children, about her marriage, about being a woman and living as one and how hard that gets, about God and religion and her constant battle with doubt and belief and how sometimes one wins over the other and so on, and about simply being. The being part is not really easy for many people, and it surely wasn't easy for Anne who ultimately and successfully committed suicide at the age of 45, but leaving herself behind in her poetry for all of us to know.

"If it is true that she attracted the worshipful attention of a cult group pruriently interested in her suicidal impulses, her psychotic breakdowns, her frequent hospitalizations, it must equally be acknowledged that her very frankness succored many who clung to her poems as to the Holy Grail. Time will sort out the dross among these poems and burnish the gold. Anne Sexton has earned her place in the canon."

My favorite poems from this collection, in the order of appearance:

To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960)

You, Doctor Martin
Her Kind
Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward
Noon Walk on the Asylum Walk
Ringing the Bells
A Story for Rose on the Midnight Flight to Boston
For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further
The Double Image
The Division of Parts

All My Pretty Ones (1962)

All My Pretty Ones
To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph
The Operation
A Curse Against Elegies
From the Garden
For Eleanor Boylan Talking With God
The Black Art
Letter Writing During a January Northeaster

Live or Die (1966)

Consorting With Angels
Love Song
Sylvia's Death
Protestant Easter
Cripples and Other Stories
The Addict

Love Poems (1969)

For My Lover, Returning to His Wife

Transformations (1971)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Red Riding Hood
Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)

The Book of Folly (1972)

The Ambition Bird
The Doctor of the Heart
Anna Who Was Mad
The Other
Jesus Dies

The Death Notebooks (1974)

Baby Picture

The Awful Rowing Towards God (1975)

The Poet of Ignorance
The Sickness Unto Death
The Evil Seekers
Small Wire

Posthumously Published:

The Child Bearers
Love Letter Written in a Burning Building
Profile Image for Christine.
6,526 reviews467 followers
March 14, 2016
Disclaimer: ARC via Open Road Media and Netgalley

I was first introduced to Anne Sexton in college during an American Poetry class. Actually, I was introduced to Sexton’s poetry because by that time she was long dead. Shortly afterwards, I read her Transformations which will always be one of my favorite books. In her poetic retellings of various Brother Grimm stories, from the most famous to less well known, Sexton shows how fairy tales are still current and powerful, and still can be connected to the modern day. Therefore, when Open Road Media put this up on Netgalley, I immediately downloaded it.

If you are someone who has been following my reviews for a while what I am about to say is old hat. If not, then you should know that I am Auto-Approved for Open Road Media titles on Netgalley. For me, Open Road Media is one of those publishing companies that synonymous with excellence. I love their reprinting of various lesser known feminist books as well as various studies of current issues (such as abortion). The Complete Poems of Sexton continues in this tradition. Care was taken in producing the digital version. As most readers of digital media can tell you, poetry is not always formatted well for e-readers. This is not the case here. Open Road Media took care to preserve each poems structure and look. The only criticism I have on this front is the lack of illustrations for Transformations.

Sexton’s poetry is dark and hits the reader hard. There is something unflinching or uncompromising in her writing. In this collection, one can not only see that but also how fairy tale and myth inspired/influenced her writing even before Transformations. Take, for instance, “Where I Live in This Honorable House of the Laurel Tree”, a poem written from the viewpoint of Daphne after her transformation into the tree when trying to escape from Apollo. In Sexton’s poem, the lines are more blurry, the anger subdued, and the tragedy up front and center. Or “The Farmer’s Wife” a poem that showcases a marriage that isn’t as blooming as would first appears. Here, she is tapping into the ideas and themes in the Feminine Mystique or for the more modern reader as expressed in the music of Paula Cole.

The witches are here as well, both as giver and taker. They are tied with Sexton’s view of life and birth. In fact, many of the poems mediate about birth and the connection to finding oneself. This is most powerfully expressed in the poem “The Abortion” as well as the poem “Water”. In fact, it is impossible to read either one of those poems without thinking about current issues before the US Supreme Court.
Considering Sexton’s struggle with mental illness, it is no surprise that many poems, even those about birth, also connect to death or even a struggle against an unimaginable though not evil darkness. There is “Sylvia’s Death”, about Plath, which eventually gives way to poems that meditate on religion. And in many ways these poems (“Protestant Easter” being one) that are the most powerful because they are about that quest of understanding and a desire to come to terms with something that in many ways defies description. The poems are not just about doubt, but even a desire, a need, to believe.

Sexton’s poetry has long had the reputation being dark, but that is a simplistic description. Her poetry is human. This collection showcases that.
Profile Image for Jamie.
321 reviews238 followers
May 8, 2010
What can I say about Anne Sexton? She's incomparable--perhaps wholly unique in the history of women's poetry. I'd like to review each of her books separately at some point, which is why I've kept this on my shelf for so long, even though I finished rereading the entire brick in March. As so many comment, the poetry is sometimes hit or miss--particularly in her last two or three collections. But far more often (which critics conveniently forget), she's absolutely on, absolutely raw, absolutely a master wordsmith. If you're just thinking of approaching Sexton and don't quite know where to begin, start with the poems "The Double Image," "Her Kind," "The Operation," "All My Pretty Ones" or "Live" (among a million others)--or with the books Love Poems or Transformations. She's certainly not for everyone--I don't suppose any poet that imagines pissing in God's eye or rewrites the Whitmanian 'catalogue technique' with the uterus will prove resonant for all readers. I don't think there's a braver poet in the 20th century, a more honest one, or one more invested in struggling to define an absolutely singular identity at any expense. Max Kumin's introduction to this book is great as well, and she probably articulates all of this far better than I can. Anne Sexton has pulled me through many a tough time, many a creative dry-spell, and if I could carry this book (and Ariel) with me at all times, I'd consider myself damn lucky.
Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,821 reviews1,323 followers
July 21, 2020
Only my books anoint me,
and a few friends,
those who reach into my veins.

This proved to be a psychologically crushing endeavor. Good Housekeeping ravaged by psychosis and incestual violence. There's so much pain and damaged mechanisms. Everything is filtered through fear and upheaval, all coping is suicidal.

Words and eggs must be handled with care.
Once broken they are impossible
things to repair.

The uneasy element in this exchange is the crucial role that parenting plays in her tableaux. More uncomfortable are the allegations made after the fact by her children. This is more than emotionally choppy this is Medea meets Mommie Dearest in a spiral of corporeal shame. Hellenic worship of the form is itself contorted into countless variations on institutional deformation, whether that be a mental health facility or Dachau. The body is twisted, filled with chemicals, milk and desire are withdrawn for the feed of cattle or the will of the boys at the front. Advertisements become medical opinion. Menstruation, vodka breakfasts and the sour cheese smell of disappointment haunt these poems.
Profile Image for Robby.
117 reviews
June 24, 2010
I have not read much poetry in the 15 years I have been alive. I have read the poems that are required, expected, to be read in school, but that is pretty much where it ends.
There are certain poets whose names I have seen and automatically wanted to read. Anne Sexton is one of them. Maybe it was the ‘sex’ in her last name that grabbed my attention. I am a teenage boy and all.
Maybe it's the picture of her on the cover of her Collected Poems, though I bought her Selected Poems first. I gave that away. The covers for both are beautiful.
Maybe it’s the fact that, in her time, the things she wrote were controversial, ludicrous, insane. Maybe it’s because she was insane.
This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for over a year. A few weeks ago I picked it up, put it on my bedside table, and told myself I would read it now. And I did. And I loved it.
But something happened about a month ago that completely convinced me that I had to read it. I will start with this story.
My mother and I were driving in Somerville, away from Somerville, the night we went to see Anna Vogelzang. We didn’t follow the directions. We ended up in Weston.
We drove through the town and I looked at the houses, the dim lights that shined in each window, the perfectly cut grass, the calm of this little town. I asked my mom if there were any markets in the town, or if people had to go into Boston, the outskirts, to shop for themselves. She told me she didn’t know.
I felt like there was something inside of me, some sort of otherworldly presence. It scared me, as well as the fact that my mother and I were the only two people out on the streets and had no idea where we were going.
But I knew what I felt. We were lost.
We got through the town, found our way home, and I went to sleep.
But I didn’t forget the feeling.
Eventually I got to this book. I picked it up, took it from under the lamp on my bedside table, and read the foreword written by Maxine Kumin.
I read that she lived and died in Weston, Massachusetts.
And I knew it was her.
It doesn’t mean she wasn’t haunting me. It doesn’t mean much of anything at all.
What I think it does mean is that it was finally time to read this book.
So I did.

I read this book everywhere- in my kitchen, my bedroom, my mother’s car, during my finals. I would sit and read the words to myself, out loud and in my mind. Sometimes I would hear her voice, the voice that gave her much noteriety when she gave public readings. Sometimes I would hear someone I couldn’t recognize.
Sometimes I would hear myself.

The foreword that precedes this book is the perfect introduction to Anne Sexton’s poetry. Maxine Kumin, a legendary poet herself, was one of Anne’s best friends. She was in her critique group with her, along with two other men whose names I have forgotten.
From the beginning, she knew Anne was different. Anne was tortured, psychotic, unstable, all of her life. She crafted stories and lies and was always brilliant, always writing, always destined to change the world of poetry.
People warned Maxine of Anne, but it didn’t stop her. She was one of the last people to see Anne alive.
The foreword ends. The book begins. I braced myself and started reading.

I considered only letting myself read one collection a day, so it would take me 10, and for the most part this is what I did. I went through the poems slowly, giving myself time to dissect the lines and attempt to understand them. Mostly I did.. The meter of her early poems was like a metronome in my mind.
To Bedlam and Part Way Back was Anne’s first collection. It contains the first poems she wrote after she began going to workshops and working with Maxine and the men. From the beginning she submitted to magazines, and she quickly rose and advanced and made her way into publishing. These poems have potential, brilliance, laced into every single one. They are easy to read, hard to read, and anxiety-ridden. I would pick highlights, but I’m not sure how long we’d be here if I did.

All My Pretty Ones, Anne’s second collection, was published two years later. It has all of the same things as To Bedlam and Part Way back did, but it also has something new. Another part of Anne is introduced, as she gets more comfortable in her writing and more uncomfortable with the path her life has taken. These poems don’t shy away from her illness, as none of hers ever did. It is explained bluntly, her emotions, though they were not obvious to her at all.
The words knew more than she did.

I had a lot of singular thoughts about these collections as I read them, which I probably should have written down. I have forgotten them now. Some of them are still here. Those are the ones I think are important to write down and get out, for you to read.
I am writing this all at once.

Live or Die is Anne’s third collection. It won the Pulitzer Prize. This is one of my favorites of the books that are compiled in this collection. The poems are arranged in chronological order, and highlight Anne’s life, all of her life, and the things that haunted her for the years she was alive.
There is something about these poems that is especially shocking.

Love Poems are about love. They are not about love. The imagery in these poems is beautiful, horrifying, and in this collection yet another part of Anne is introduced. It has been acknowledged many times that Anne’s writing got much more disfigured and complicated as she got older. She always had her style, always, but it was changing. Here, it is more evident than in the poems before it.
Here, she is shining on the top of the world.

Transformations is frequently recognized as Anne’s best collection, or maybe I’m just telling myself that I’ve read it. Frankly, I did not like this collection. I liked it, appreciated it, but I couldn’t get into it. It is a retelling of the Grimm’s fairy tales, going one by one through them. I could not relate to them, though I could not relate to many of Anne’s poems before. It was more obvious now, and I felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I will read them again eventually. I will re-read this whole collection..

If you haven’t noticed, I am going one by one through each of the collections and sharing my thoughts. You don’t have to keep reading. Better yet, run as fast as you can to some bookstore and buy this, if it is there. If it is not there, order it.
You will know what I’m talking about when I say that Anne is almost godly, so close that the ‘almost’ is barely necessary.
I am going to continue.

The Book of Folly is a return to Anne’s old work, but also a look forward to her new work, the things she was going to write. There is the harsh honesty that was always there in her earlier collections, but also the imagery that was present in Love Poems and Transformations. Even with the imagery, you still know that she is not writing of anyone but herself.
It never feels self-centered. It feels like you are reading something you cannot drop on the floor.

The Death Notebooks is the last collection of Anne’s work that was published before she died. It is about death, of course, but everything Anne wrote is about death in some way. Everything Anne wrote is about everything. You can fit each poem into so many different categories, without pushing it or deforming it in order for it to slide in smoothly.
Her poems are the perfect fit. They are the kinds of poems I have dreamed of writing.
Here, though, it is obvious that Anne was going to go.

Anne wrote The Awful Rowing Toward God quickly, in just a few weeks, during a mental breakdown. This is the collection she presented to Maxine the day she took her life. Here, she is as distracted as ever, as lustful with the idea of suicide as she has ever been.
These poems are about religion, God, the things she was frantically searching for in the last years of her life. I am writing these words so quickly I can barely keep up with my thoughts. That’s what this collection reminded me of- tying up loose ends.
She would not allow this to be published before she died. It was already scheduled for the spring on 1975 when she killed herself.

Anne was working on 45 Mercy Street, revising it, up until she died. There is an editor’s note before it, and in it her daughter writes that some poems have been excluded due to danger of the resentment for Anne’s family that lies in some of the poems.
This collection is full of secrets, and that is what I felt while reading it, like I knew something I shouldn’t know.
It was different, reading this, knowing that she was already dead.
It hit me again and again, though she has been dead for almost 40 years.
The Divorce Papers, the third part of this collection, is one of my favorite series’ of Anne’s that is in this collection.
It is about the disintegration of everything around her, and the poems are breathtaking, as always.

Words For Dr. Y. is a collection that was put together by Anne’s daughter Linda (who is Anne’s literary executor.) The first series is a compilation of letters that Anne wrote to her therapist about the things she was thinking about, the things he was telling her, that stretches over the span of 10 years.
The third series of poems that are here is probably my favorite, or my close favorite, of all of the things in this book. It is called “Scorpio, Bad Spider, Die.” There are horoscopes, anecdotes, and the words are sparse and minimal and yet the emotional undertones are as present and assaulting as ever.
These were written years before she fell into the death hole.

The final poems, a few last poems from her last years, are almost not there. They are Anne, always Anne, but she is already gone. Her marriage has dissolved and her children are distancing themselves from her and she is losing herself, has already lost herself.
The last poem that she wrote in her life, only a few weeks before she killed herself, is “Love Letter Written in a Burning Building.”
Reading it, I knew it was coming. And it did.

I have written this review in Microsoft Word. It is 5 pages long, 1850 words and I am not even finished, and I doubt anyone has made it this far.
That’s good. Maybe you are already on your way to the bookstore.
There will never be another Anne Sexton. People will try to write like her, and probably already have, but she is the kind of poet and person that only comes once every century, millennium, and she is one-of-a-kind.
She would’ve died by now even if she hadn’t killed herself, probably.
Maybe it had to happen.
Reading these poems, I felt insane. It was horrifying, that I began to understand why she said the things she did, believed she could. I felt alive reading these poems, something I'm always searching to feel when I read.
I felt it. I always felt it.

I want to know more about her life. There is a biography I am curious about, and also a compilation of letters she wrote that her daughter (Linda Gray) edited. I am also curious to read her daughter’s writings.
I want to know more about her. The Confessionalism that Anne’s writing almost always resides in does not mean that it is a Confession, a simply stated apology.
This is not her life, these poems. It is her life. It is her illness. It is all of the women she ever was, those doomed, tortured women.
But she was brilliant. And that is enough.
Profile Image for Melissa Riker.
17 reviews10 followers
July 9, 2007
Is there a match in the world to For my lover returning to his wife? I don't think so....
and then To my Little girl, My Stringbean
The motherly advice that "Dear Linda, Women are born twice"
Her words are perfect in so many ways.

There are poems that go too far for my to enjoy them - I like some darkness in life, but I've been through my melodramatic stage already...so I don't need it quite as much....

that aside - read Transformations in its entirety - the reveal it gives to fairytales is a fabulous peel of veneer and disturbing use of imagination!!
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 11 books329 followers
November 11, 2007
I originally gave this four stars because Anne Sexton is far from perfect and there are poems of hers (esp. Transformations) that I don't like that much but then again, when she's on, it's pretty much as close as I'm ever going to come to smoking crack. Really, I love how she can pile on the similes as if they were college students piling into a phone booth.
Profile Image for Abby.
1,395 reviews178 followers
September 20, 2014
Beautiful, strong, and sad. These are not poems for the faint of heart. I appreciated reading her complete works, as this volume provided a fuller picture of the artist and her transformation over time. The anger and the darkness grow as the years pass, but Sexton never loses her focus and her courage.
Profile Image for Eadweard.
602 reviews491 followers
January 30, 2017
Favorite collections:
Love Poems
The Death Notebook
The Awful Rowing Toward God

Favorite poem:
Wanting To Die

"Suicides have already betrayed the body."

"my death from the wrists,
two name tags,
blood worn like a corsage
to bloom"

"All day I've built
a lifetime and now
the sun sinks to
undo it"

"To die whole
riddled with nothing
but desire for it,
is like breakfast
after love."
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,961 reviews674 followers
December 12, 2017
I had read a little of Anne Sexton over the years, not much, but I had remembered rather liking what I'd read. The Sylvia Plath comparisons are often made, but I like Sexton's accounts of depression and bloodied tampons quite a bit more -- I never got over Plath's melodrama, nor her studied misery. With Sexton, I feel like I'm getting the real thing, the 1950s mad housewife of legend as seen in the wild. Start with "Wanting to Die" - it's a classic for a reason after all, then work your way through the rest of the confessional poems and the delightfully fucked up "Transformations." This:

"Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story."

That's the sound of her cigarette being pressed against your arm.
Profile Image for Debra.
Author 1 book12 followers
November 11, 2013
I have mixed feelings about poetry. I want to love it, but it is rare that I come across a poem or poet that I really enjoy. I want a poem to speak to me on a personal level; that is what a good poem is supposed to do. Admittedly, I am not the sort of reader that takes pleasure in dissecting or analyzing a piece. For me, a great deal of poetry is like a moody acquaintance that could be fascinating if he wasn't so difficult to like.

The first poem by Anne Sexton that I read was "Her Kind" and just like that I was hooked. I admire her raw confessional style. Perhaps part of the reason Anne's poetry speaks to me is because I understand the dark place she often writes from. I've been there.
Profile Image for E. G..
1,112 reviews668 followers
October 27, 2017
A Note on the Text, by Linda Gray Sexton
How It Was: Maxine Kumin on Anne Sexton

--To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960)

--All My Pretty Ones (1962)

--Live or Die (1966)

--Love Poems (1969)

--Transformations (1971)

--The Book of Folly (1972)

--The Death Notebooks (1974)

--The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975)

Posthumously Published Work

Editor's Note
--Mercy Street (1976)

Editor's Note
--Words for Dr. Y. (1978)

Last Poems
--Admonitions to a Special Person
--In Excelsis
--As It Was Written
--Lessons in Hunger
--Love Letter Written in a Burning Building

Index of Titles
Profile Image for winterthekatt.
98 reviews13 followers
May 16, 2016
I've always been drawn to confessional poetry, so inevitably one of the first poets I came across when I started researching this genre was Anne Sexton. I was immediately addicted. Anne Sexton was a brilliant poet with a brutally honest voice and I was hooked. The first book I bought of hers is proof of this -every other page is dog-eared and about 90% of it is highlighted. I am still fascinated by her poetry and how she never shied away from any topic. Her life, heartbreaking and tumultuous is basically chronicled in her collection of poems throughout the years.

The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton is exactly what it claims to be. It is a massive and truly complete collection. This book is an absolute must have!

*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review*
Profile Image for ra.
423 reviews47 followers
November 18, 2021
slightly nostalgic but i'll always remember anne sexton's lines (e.g "once i was beautiful but now i am myself" etc.) as words one of my dearest friends and i have repeated back and forth to each other for 5 years now 💌❤️‍🩹
Profile Image for Jessi.
158 reviews7 followers
July 29, 2007
Anne Sexton is one of my favorite poets. Confessional poets have always appealed to me with their raw honesty and intensity.
Profile Image for Matthew Wilder.
197 reviews27 followers
March 12, 2019
Anne Sexton belongs on that shelf marked FOR THE LAYMAN. Like Allen Ginsberg and Kurt Vonnegut, she is one of those writers you don’t have to know much about writing to understand; and like them she is an avatar of literature as resource for expressing lived wisdom. For one who is relentlessly—awful contemporary word...CONFESSIONAL...the thing that separates Anne out from her 2019, Millennial, auto-fictiony cohort is that Anne keeps everything vivid, crackly, almost operatically intense. After TRANSFORMATIONS, Sexton’s flabbergasting, Breillat-like gene transplants of fairy tales, Sexton goes into a bit of a decline. One notices the unfortunate influence of the Beats. Things get topical—and some poets can transform the topical into the eternal; some not. Sexton was one of the nots.

Sexton will be timeless. She’ll be read, at the very least, as long as there are women in pain. It’s too bad, that niche, as she makes an effort to—-and succeeds at—-finding imagery dazzling enough to make her experiences resonate with everyone. I like the Facebook-post-esque writers of 2019, Sexton seeks not just to “speak her truth” but to communicate across a chasm. An autodidact, Sexton had the common touch. She still does, today.
Profile Image for Nemanja.
78 reviews11 followers
August 19, 2021
Umetnost imitira život.
Kao i sve umetnosti, ni književnost ne odstupa od ovog pravila. Poezija sasvim sigurno ima preduslov i potencijal da u odnosu na druge grane književnosti pokidao tu nevidljivu granicu između stvarnosti i mašte, i stvori nešto nadasve veličanstveno.

En Sekston je odličan primer osobe koja bi se mogla opisati latinskom poslovicom "ad astra per aspera". Mada, koju je cenu En Sekston platila da bi dodirnula zvezde?

En Sekston je u svetu poezije postala simbol otpora, autorka koja je u svojim delima uništila granicu mašte i realnosti, i u svoja dela, bez ikakve zadrške prenosila svu svoju i kolektivnu žensku bol. Žena koja je samo u književnosti videla i osećala sigurnost od nepoznatog sveta kojim je bila okružena, odbacujući nametnute uloge žene u društvu.

En Sekston nije bila rođena da bude pisac, već je ulogu pisca odabrala kao jedini spas od smrti.

Život nije lak, niti jednostavno. Sačinjen od puno krivina, prepreka i rupa, pun očekivanja i razočarenja. Život nije lak, pogotovo ako ste žena. Žena koja se trudi da izađe iz okvira očekivanog i pokuša da od svog života učini nešto više, bolje, nešto kvalitetnije i značajnije. U toj borbi protiv drugih ožiljci koji nastaju ostaju duboko skriveni pod kožom, skriveni od očiju drugih, poznati samo onima koji ih nose.
En Sekston je bila pod tim teretom, osuđena na svoju nesreću. Njena nesreća je bila ogromna da je prosto proizilazila iz nje kroz pero i pretakala se u reči kojima je stvarala svoju poeziju.

Postoji zaista nešto magično u činjenici da papir na kome stvaramo oseća i, svesni mi toga ili ne, on sasvim sigurno preslikava naša osećanja, našu bol, brige, misli, naše strahove. En Sekston je poezijom počela da se bavi, misleći da će tako uspeti da se izbavi iz haosa koji je boravio u njenom umu. Stvarala je poeziju koja je bila lišena svega što je trebalo biti skriveno, pisajući sasvim otvoreno o svom stanju, bolesti, suicidima, odnosima u porodici. Pisala je o težini bremena uloge ćerke, majke, supruge, žene.

Dobitnica Pulicerove nagrade nažalost nije uspela da pisanjem odagna svoju bol. Nakon teškog životog perioda, bez ikakve najave okončala je život samoubistvom u 45. godini.
Profile Image for Bradley Hankins.
134 reviews4 followers
January 30, 2022
I absolutely loved this. Sexton's words are raw, emotional, powerful and dark. Majority of my favourite poems came from To Bedlam and Part Way Back, All My Pretty Ones, Live or Die, Transformations, and The Death Notebooks, ranging from 1960-1674. Her poetry from To Bedlam and Part Way Back for me was truly emotional, her confessional poetry is extremely remarkable and relatable. Her writing is something I aspire to be able to achieve.
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